Language: English

(M)other Tongue: Sign Language in Translation

"I can only access conversation that is intended for me to access—and so all spoken conversation that I pick up is meaningful."

When I began to progressively lose my hearing at three years old, my mother fought for me to have access to both British Sign Language classes and speech therapy sessions, offering me a dual-language gateway. Through travel and education opportunities, I know phrases, sentences and expressions in other languages—both signed and spoken. But it is in English and BSL that I primarily express myself, code-switching when appropriate and, at times, combining the two together to speak SSE (Sign-supported English). This is sign language that follows English grammatical structure, as opposed to BSL structure. For those new to BSL, it can come as a surprise to discover that it is its own language, complete with its own rules, format and words—or rather signs—that have no direct equivalent in English.

And so, on a day-to-day basis, I communicate using my hands (signing), voice (speaking), and eyes (lip-reading), as a giver and a receiver. I enjoy the literal sound certain words make as they hold space in the air. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, I love the shape of language created by fingers, expressions and the body. People also underestimate the use of the whole body in sign language – though it is primarily through the hands that words are expressed; meaning, content and colour is amplified through other parts of the body, in particular, the face.


Meet the Publisher: Groundwood Books’ Patricia Aldana on Children’s Literature in Translation

"The key—to have children be so entranced by the books they read that they will be a reader for life."

Groundwood Books is a Toronto-based publisher of children’s and young adult literature. The press was founded by Patricia Aldana in 1978 and almost from the start has been publishing Canadian literature alongside titles from around the world in translation. Groundwood’s catalogue includes books from Egypt, Mexico, and Mongolia, to name a few, and the press is particularly interested in publishing marginalized and underrepresented voices. Though Aldana sold Groundwood to House of Anansi Press in 2012, she remains active in the area of children’s literature. She is currently president of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) foundation and collaborates with the China Children’s Press and Publications Group, where she is responsible for bringing international literature to Chinese children. In an interview that took place in Buenos Aires during the TYPA Foundation’s workshop on translating literature for children and young adults, Aldana spoke with Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, about the qualities she looks for in books for children and the challenges of translating for young readers.

Sarah Moses (SM): When did Groundwood Books begin publishing children’s and young adult literature in translation?

Patricia Aldana (PA): Quite early, by 1981, I started doing translations of books in French from Québec. There were subsidies for translation from the Canada Council, which made it easier—especially novels. I was also going to Bologna and selling rights, and there I started finding books from other languages that were interesting to translate.

The Canadian market was quite healthy at that time and you could bring in books from other countries. But in 1992 provincial governments started to close down school libraries which affected the entire ecosystem of the Canadian market  and we had to go into the U.S. market directly and publish books there ourselves. A lot of our authors were known in the States because we had sold rights to them, to compete with the U.S. giants and to differentiate ourselves from them as by that point they had virtually stopped translating anything—we seized the opportunity to publish translations for a much bigger market. The Canadian market had deteriorated to such a point by then that it couldn’t really justify publishing a translation—other than of a Canadian author from Québec.


There is Nothing Anymore: Auden in the Saint Lucian Countryside

No end also to loss, yes, but no end to our tragic struggle against despair.

In this personal essay, a young poet attends a funeral in his native Saint Lucia, where a spontaneous funeral chant puts him in mind of a poem by Auden. To Vladimir Lucien, the funeral chant and the Auden poem constitute different approaches to the finality of death. In their juxtaposition, we learn something not only about the language and customs in the Saint Lucian countryside, but about the universal human yearning for the transcendence of our finitude.

Alloy’s funeral was packed. It had to be. In the village of Mon Repos, Saint Lucia, he had been everything: head of the local “friendly society,” choir member, bus driver, community organiser and activist, folk singer. The church, however, was an unusually small and claustrophobic Catholic Church with a low ceiling; it felt like a house converted into a church and hurriedly sacralised. Alloy’s daughter—who was a lecturer, my colleague—delivered the eulogy.


Section Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our editors choose their favorites from the Winter 2018 Issue.

Asymptote’s new Winter 2018 issue is replete with spectacular writing. See what our section editors have to say about the pieces closest to their hearts: 

It’s a struggle to pick ​just one poet to highlight from this momentous issue of our journal, but perhaps I will mention the Infrarealist Mexican poet José Vicente Anaya ​whose work Heriberto Yépez described as “revelation, a sacred practice against brainwashing and lobotomy” (source: translator​’s​ note). Much as each poet in this issue and ​the set of circumstances in which they write are distinct, I read all their works as sacred, necessary attempts to counter the forces of obliteration and oblivion against which they—and ​we—strive. In Anaya’s case, a core element of the ritual is híkuri (​”peyote” in ​the ​indigenous language of​ Rarámuri), the ingestion of which makes the speaker spiral, psychedelically, inward and outward​,​ so that nothing is quite separate from everything else. The revelation is this: we’ve overbuilt the world and left ourselves broken. Joshua ​Pollock’s translation recreates the visionary​ spirit​ of the hyperlingual source text to bring us the ferocity of lines such as these:

On Superhighways we hallucinate
in order to carry on living, Victor,
let’s build an anti-neutron bomb
that leaves life standing
demolishing suffocating buildings /
new machines working for everyone
so that time raises us
from joy
to Art
to joy / and
HUMANity governs without government

—Aditi Machado, Poetry Editor

“[there are also] a number of young writers who are emerging, for instance, in the Gambia, who are also catering a lot to the local market. They are to come.” — Tijan M. Sallah at an interview at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, 2012

It is impossible to think of Gambian literature without thinking of the poetry, short stories, and essays of Tijan M. Sallah. Sallah is The Gambia’s most renowned and prolific literary figure, but what makes him most remarkable is his generosity. Sallah, like many of the great Gambian writers before him, balanced his “day job” while continuing his tireless support of other writers and The Gambia’s burgeoning literary scene. For writers such as Lenrie Peters, it was being a medical doctor, while holding literary workshops for aspiring young Gambian writers; for Tijan M. Sallah, it was a successful career as an economist at the World Bank, while continuing to foster community among the Gambian diaspora’s literary voices, his early contributions to the Timbooktoo Bookstore, or even—lucky for us at Asymptote—his willingness to write this essay on some of The Gambia’s emerging poets. Sallah’s essay is both a tribute to the previous wave of Gambian writers and a passing on of the baton to the next generation of poets. In this essay, he spotlights three of the exciting new voices in the Gambian literary landscape today. It’s a must-read from this issue.

—Ah-reum Han, Writers on Writers Editor


Blog Editors’ Highlights: Winter 2018

Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue!

To celebrate our seventh birthday here at Asymptote, the blog editors have chosen some of our favorite pieces from the Winter 2018 issue to showcase. This issue truly shines with a diversity of voices and literary styles, including a special feature on micro fiction, and it was such a pleasure for us to read through it. With work from thirty different countries, this issue has been gathered under the theme of “A Different Light.” Enjoy these highlights!

I’ve always admired Asymptote‘s advocacy for literatures that not only are underrepresented, but that take chances, resist easy reduction or interpretation by the reader. Poems that dare to be “the awkward spectacle of the untried move, not grace” (to borrow a phrase from American poet Don Byrd). Poets like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine. The poems from Arachnid Sun shock me with their bold imagery, impelling me to read again and again. I latch on to certain repeated images: insect, illusion, blood. And definitely a noticeable theme of authoritarian rulers: “spider-eggs perfuming the silence the dictator” and “harpoon the king-shark who flees the riverbeds of polar scrubland.”


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Bringing this week's greatest hits from the four corners of the literary globe!

Our weekly news update continues in the dawn of this exciting and unpredictable year, but before we get down to business, Asymptote has some very important news of its own (in case you missed it): our new Winter 2018 issue has launched and is buzzing with extraordinary writing across every literary genre! Meanwhile, our ever-committed Editors-at-Large—this week from Brazil, Hungary and Singapore—have selected the most important events, publications and prizes from their regions, all right here at your disposal. 

Theophilus Kwek, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Singapore:

2017 ended on a high note as Singapore’s literary community celebrated the successes—and homecomings—of four fiction writers who have gained international acclaim: Krishna Udayasankar, Rachel Heng, JY Yang, and Sharlene Teo. At a packed reading organized by local literary non-profit Sing Lit Station on December 30th, the four read excerpts from their recent or forthcoming work, from Yang’s Singlish-laced speculative short fiction, to fragments of Teo’s novel Ponti, winner of the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writer’s Award. The following weekend, Udayasankar and Heng joined other Singapore-based writers such as Toh Hsien Min and Elaine Chiew for two panel discussions on aspects of international publishing, which aimed to promote legal and ethical awareness among the community here.

Other celebrations in the first fortnight of 2018 took on more deep-seated local issues. Writers, musicians and artists from among Singapore’s migrant community presented a truly cosmopolitan evening of song and poetry to a 400-strong audience that included fellow migrant workers, migrant rights activists, and members of the Singaporean public. Among the performers were the three winners of 2017’s Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition, alongside Rubel Arnab, founder of the Migrants’ Library, and Shivaji Das, a prominent translator and community organizer. Several days after, indie print magazine Mynah—the first of its kind dedicated to long-form, investigative nonfiction—launched their second issue with a hard-hitting panel on ‘History and Storytelling’. Contributors Kirsten Han, Faris Joraimi and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow all spoke persuasively about contesting Singapore’s official narratives of progress and stability, and the role of writers in that truth-seeking work.


Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The first dispatches of 2018 bring us the literary news from Albania, Argentina, and the U.K.

As the new year gets underway, we are back with more literary news from all over the world. Barbara Halla updates us on the progress of the National Library in Albania. We learn about events in the Argentinian literary scene from Sarah Moses. Finally, Alice Fischer shares several articles highlighting the best books of 2017 and updates us about a new literary agency in the UK.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania:

2017 proved a difficult year for the field of Albanian studies: Prominent Albanologist Robert Elsie passed away in October 2017. Elsie left behind a vast bibliography on Albanian history and language, not to mention hundreds of English translations spanning centuries of Albanian literature, all available for free on a dedicated website. Despite the loss, some good news awaits his fans and researchers in this field. I.B. Tauris, an independent publishing house based in London, will issue in early 2018 two of Elsie’s never-before-published works: “Albanian Bektashis” and “The Book of Kosovo.” No definitive publication date is available yet, but interested readers can find many of Elsie’s previous books for sale on I.B. Tauris’s catalogue. Updates on the upcoming publications will be published on Elsie’s personal page, now maintained by his life-partner, Stephan Trieweiler.


2018: A Year of Reading Adventurously

In 2018, I’ll be making an effort to trace my inheritance as an Anglophone, Southeast Asian poet of faith and colour.

After the recently concluded blog series in which we looked back on 2017’s literary discoveries, we bring you our New Year’s reading resolutions.

Chris Power, Assistant Editor:

I work in French and German, so I’ll start with my French literary resolutions: I’m reading Marx et la poupée (Marx and the Doll) by Maryam Madjidi with my friend and former French professor, the psychoanalytic literary theorist Jerry Aline Flieger. Excerpts of the novel of course appear in our current issue. If it isn’t my favorite work we’ve published, then it stands out for being the one that overwhelmed my critical faculties. I couldn’t write about it in the disinterested manner that I prefer. Instead I wrote a confused, gushing blurb listing my favorite scenes and describing how it brought tears to my eyes. An emphatic “yes” was all I could muster. Next on my list is Réparer le monde (Repair the World) by Alexandre Gefen, to which Laurent Demanze dedicated a beautiful essay in Diacritik in late November. I’m looking forward not only to an insightful survey of contemporary French literature, but also to a provocative anti-theoretical turn in the history of literary theory, namely a theory of the utility of literature (to repair the world) which cites pragmatist philosophers like John Dewey. Gefen introduces this theory enticingly through a reading of Barthes in his lecture “A quoi bon ? Les pouvoirs de la littérature (La tentation de l’écriture)” / “What’s the use? The powers of literature (the temptation of writing)” which is available online, but I must admit that I’m reminded of a Baudelaire quote dear to me: “Être un homme utile m’a toujours paru quelque chose de bien hideux.” (“To be a useful man has always appeared to me to be particularly hideous.”) In 2018 I’ll also continue exploring the work of Sarah Kofman, who seems to me to be a diamond in the rough of historical amnesia and a potential dissertation topic. She’s exactly the kind of Nietzschean, Parisian philosopher-poet of the 1960s who worked at the intersection of philosophy and art that we’ve grown so comfortable labelling a “theorist,” but she hasn’t (yet) acquired the cult following of her dissertation advisor Gilles Deleuze or colleague Jacques Derrida.


My 2017: Jacob Silkstone

Perhaps the fitting thing to do would have been to throw the book into the water and let the waves close over it...

Assistant Managing Editor Jacob Silkstone travelled between several countries and two distinct stages of his life in 2017—and still had time to read a ton of literature! Today, in our final column, he reflects on the books that accompanied him on the move.

* * *

“If I imagine something, I see it. What more would I do if I travelled? Only extreme feebleness of the imagination can justify anyone needing to travel in order to feel.”

The complete edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (translated by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa) finally became available to English readers in 2017, and I first read Bernardo Soares’ hodophobic lines in an Airbnb flat in Portugal at the 40-degree height of summer. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and for hours the taps dribbled a thin brown fluid, but I had Soares’ life “of slow rain in which everything is … half-shadow” to keep me occupied.

In a year that began with the Trump travel ban and continued to be marred by small, scared attempts to shelter from the world behind various walls (both real and imaginary), it seems worth playing Devil’s advocate to Soares/Pessoa: perhaps there can be some justification for travelling “in order to feel.”

This year, I moved between several countries and two distinct stages of my lifehaving finally proposed after nearly nine years in a relationship, I got married in July. The evening after the wedding, I gave my copy of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness away on a whim to one of our guests, a foreign correspondent working in the Middle East. That copy subsequently embarked on a journey Arundhati Roy would have been proud of, travelling from Beirut to Syria to Yemen. READ MORE…

My 2017: Diána Vonnák

“Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great.

Editor-at-Large for Hungary Diána Vonnák, who joined us in October this year, moved between fiction and nonfiction titles in 2017. Some of these books blurred the lines between both and probed the relationship between invented worlds and our own. 

I spent much of this year reading books I would have trouble classifying either as fiction or nonfiction. They reminded me of Geoff Dyer, who began his “Art of Nonfiction” interview with the Paris Review by protesting the division: “Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.” They do, and the result is often great. Here are my favourites from 2017.

I started the year with Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, an engrossing family memoir-cum-intellectual history. Sands, a human rights lawyer, sets off on a journey to recover his own family history—which leads him back to Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine. Before the Holocaust eliminated its prolific Jewish life, Ralph Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who would later become legal scholars, both studied there. Just like Sands’ own grandparents, Lemkin and Lauterpacht left their hometowns and were spared from the massacre that eradicated their entire families. Sands combines a precipitating personal memoir with a vivid reconstruction of how the Holocaust led these two thinkers to develop the notions, in Lemkin’s case, of genocide and, in Lauterpacht’s case, of crimes against humanity. Sands shows how their ideas originated from their personal lives, and as he follows Lemkin and Lauterpacht through emigration, he reconstructs their respective intellectual environments. It all culminates in the milestone legal debates that took place after the Holocaust—Sands shows us how Lemkin’s and Lauterpacht’s own compelling circumstances shaped their arguments. It is rare to see legal history woven so seamlessly into personal reflection.


Meet the Publisher: Charco Press Director Carolina Orloff on Contemporary Latin American Literature

Being small and independent means that we have total freedom when it comes to making our decisions.

Charco Press is an Edinburgh-based publisher dedicated to bringing the best in contemporary Latin American fiction to English-speaking readers. The press seeks out innovative, thought-provoking literature—and compelling stories—and their first titles, released in the summer of 2017, reflect the diversity of voices they are committed to publishing. Over email, Charco’s director, Carolina Orloff, and Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, Sarah Moses, discussed the press’s origins, the wealth of contemporary literature being written in Latin America, and what Charco has in store for 2018.

Sarah Moses (SM): How was Charco Press born?

Carolina Orloff (CO): Charco Press was born from observing a real stagnation when it comes to Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. When you ask an avid reader, what’s the last book they read by a Latin American author, the same names recur: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges, maybe Bolaño, maybe Isabel Allende. Having experienced first-hand the extraordinary wealth and variety of literature being produced on the other side of the pond, we felt it was time to update the scene and bring some of that talent across for the English-speaking reader to discover and enjoy.


In Conversation: Christopher Merrill, Director of The International Writing Program

What persists through every job I have my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are
     with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I
     translate into a new tongue.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

This is perhaps the most appropriate introduction to Christopher Merrill, the award-winning poet and translator from Slovenian and Korean who directs the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. Gifted with a style that frequently combines, as Kirkus Reviews called it, “Merrill-the-poet’s gorgeous writing, and Merrill-the-reporter’s sharp eye,” he has risen to greater international prominence in part through his involvement with the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and extensive cultural diplomacy engagement all over the world.

In his recent memoir Self-Portrait with Dogwood, Merrill writes: “The invention of language made possible what we imagine to comprise human experience, for good or ill—agriculture, warfare, religion, government, poetry, philosophy, art, and science, not to mention the emotions that drive individuals, societies, and civilizations. Long ago, under a tree, we learned to express ourselves in a new key, building structures of meaning word by word, phrase by phrase, alert to the necessities of living, to the varieties of love and grief, to the mysteries of faith, quirks of nature, and consolations of storytelling… The musical possibilities encoded in language expanded our understanding of the worlds without and within, giving birth to poetry—and so much more.”

Claire Jacobson: Can you tell me how you got started writing poetry, and translating, and being involved in the international writing community? Basically, what is the origin story of Christopher Merrill?

Christopher Merrill: A writer’s origin story may change over time, especially if the writer’s life takes many forms, as mine has. Thus at different points along the way I have dated the beginning of my literary vocation to a love affair; a serious illness at the age of twenty-four; working as a war correspondent in the Balkans; making pilgrimages on the Holy Mountain of Athos; and so on. But the most enduring story is that as a teenager in New Jersey I wanted to be a soccer player and a poet: two career paths that did not sit well with my parents—which only enhanced their appeal. When I matriculated at Middlebury College, where I was recruited to play soccer and intended to be a French major, I had the good luck to take a poetry workshop with the novelist Thomas Gavin, who became a lifelong friend; his encouragement inspired me to serve what turned into an unusual literary apprenticeship, which included stints as a graduate student, nurseryman, college soccer coach, caretaker, bookstore clerk, director of writers’ conferences, and freelance journalist. What persists through every job I have held, each of which I viewed as a gift regardless of the pay or working conditions, is my love of reading and writing, which at every turn has helped me to navigate my time here below.


The Asymptote Book Club Is Here!

The best of global literature, delivered to you monthly!

Today, we interrupt our regular programming to bring you some exciting news about a groundbreaking initiative we are launching at Asymptote!

We’re thrilled to announce the launch of our latest project: the Asymptote Book Club—a new way for you and your loved ones to dip into the wealth of world literature! For as little as USD15 each month, receive a new fiction title hot off the presses of the very best independent publishers in the UK and the US, specially curated by the Asymptote team and delivered to your door.

When you sign up for the Book Club, you’re supporting not only Asymptote but also independent publishers by helping them continue to publish the best stories from international authors. Subscribe by December 9th to receive our very first title, shipping in December 2017! We also offer gift subscriptions and group discounts, so think about giving those you love a whole new world of reading this holiday season!


As borders of the heart and of the polity continue to thicken and petrify throughout the globe, Asymptote’s cross-cultural mission becomes ever more urgent. 2017 has been an incredible year for us. With readers like you standing behind us, we put together a showcase of Banned Countries’ Literature to fight Trump’s #MuslimBan, gave USD3,000 to six emerging translators through yet another edition of our translation contest, and published 17 Translation Tuesdays at The Guardian. This year has also seen 47 Weekly Dispatches reported from six continents, along with countless reviews and interviews published at the blog. While institutional funding continues to elude us (and we continue to be ineligible for the grants that like organizations in the US or the UK receive), we’ve certainly worked hard to keep bringing you podcasts and educational guides, in addition to massive quarterly issues featuring new writing from upwards of 25 countries per issue.

What better way to end this turbulent year than by pledging your support for free speech, fine literature and meaningful cross-cultural dialogue? If you believe in the importance of our mission, we humbly ask you to pitch in with a one-time contribution or by becoming either an honorary member or a sustaining member. There is still so much more for world literature that we can do with your help. Support Asymptote today!

Translator’s Diary: Vincent Kling

If it’s true that every translation must inevitably fail, this passage would be Exhibit A.

In this final installment of Vincent Kling’s translation column, En Route, Up Close, Kling discusses the difficulties of translating complicated works and considers whether one should remain loyal to meter at the expense of feel and fluidity. Kling explores translation in all its layered complexity, demonstrating with characteristic erudition and generosity the reasons why literary translation as a form resists the confines of any universally accepted code.

Two Hurdles for Translators

1. The Relatively Easy One. Two newly acclaimed releases, Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and David Ferry’s of the Aeneid, have prompted some discussion about what elements can and should be reproduced as closely as possible and what should—or indeed must—be altered. Reviewers are mainly concentrating on meter, because it is usually agreed that Homer’s and Virgil’s dactylic hexameters come across awkwardly in English; even a technical virtuoso like Longfellow couldn’t always make six-beat dactylic lines work in Evangeline. Both Wilson and Ferry have opted for blank verse (beautifully rendered in both cases), and even strict Augustans like Dryden and Pope knew better than to espouse a line that’s too long for flexibility in English. It was Dryden, after all, who adopted the idea of “imitation,” of the need to respect the nature of the target language. Later, Richard Wilbur shrewdly recast Molière’s alexandrines into pentameter, a decision that finally made the French dramatist’s work performable, even palatable, in a meter that best follows the contours of English accentuation. Anthony Hecht similarly forged vigorous, muscular heroic couplets out of Voltaire’s six-stress lines in his “Poem upon the Lisbon Disaster,” an idiomatic, fast-moving translation that is at its most ‘faithful’ in changing six beats to five.